The conscience of a Perpetrator –
Rudolf Höss, Commander of Auschwitz1
It is difficult for us to turn to a mass murderer wanting to understand him and believing that God loves all people, including him. Why is there something in us instinctively resisting?
I suppose there are two main reasons: Above all, it is the fear of forgetting the victims, not taking them seriously enough or even betraying them, and thus sacrificing them once more by trying to understand the perpetrator. We would then be complicit in betraying justice.
And there is the fear that the offender could get too close to us if we begin to understand a lot. He would then no longer be in another world which we have nothing to do with, which we could simply condemn and separate from ours. He would suddenly be one of us, like us, and that scares.
But there are two important reasons why we must venture this turn towards the culprit. The perpetrators, not the victims, were responsible for the catastrophe. We must ask ourselves, where similar things can happen in our lives. Only then can we learn something about our own responsibility, if we do not want to become perpetrators ourselves.
And if we take our own faith seriously, we have to ask, “Where was God in Auschwitz?”, because today we live in a culture “after Auschwitz”. If God was not in Auschwitz, where should he be today? Therefore, we must also ask “Where was God in the life of the Commander of Auschwitz?”
Theology, speech about God, is always the fruit of an encounter between faith and life. Faith illuminates life, life asks questions of faith. If we look at the biography of a criminal, questions arise as to whether he also is made in “the image of God” (cf Gen. 1:27), whether God loves him (see Matthew 5: 44-48)?
The following reflections ask about God and Evil with regard to the biography of Rudolf Höß, the commander of Auschwitz.2 His autobiography “My Psyche: Development, Life and Experience”3 written from his prison in Cracow in February 1947, concluded with the words:
May the public continue to see in me the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions – for the majority of people would not be able to imagine the Commander of Auschwitz in any other way. The broad mass of people will never understand that he also had a heart, that he wasn’t evil.4
Here lies precisely the problem: Höß was not an animal without any conscience, no “bloodthirsty beast”. Höß was not a sick person, unable to assume responsibility; he was no “cruel sadist”. But he was nevertheless the “murderer of millions”. It is because he “had a heart” that he was responsible. For this very reason we are entitled to ask whether he was “evil”.
The heart is the place in the human being where decisions are made about being open or being closed, where relationships to others and the desire for God are born and directed. The question concerning the heart therefore is the primary key for evaluation. The question of God and evil in the life of Rudolf Höß is the question of love in his life.
Where does the relationship of God have its place in life? And what do we really mean when we speak of God? The National Socialist worldview was anti-Jewish and anti-Christian, but not atheistic in its self-image; the leaders of the SS described themselves as “god-believers”. The true relationship with God, however, is the relationship to the mystery of love, which absolutely affirms and at the same time calls for a responsibility before other people. Because relationship to God and love are inseparable from each other, it is necessary to distinguish what is expressed as God’s relationship, but in reality is idolistic, that is, far from love, selfish, and therefore in truth atheistic. It is only a so-called “God” relationship. This does not differ fundamentally from attitudes that consciously reject God. On the other hand, attitudes that are distant from God but radically trust love are “anonymous” relationships with God. That’s why we look for love when we ask about God.
Love Requires Love
Rudolf Höß, like every human being, naturally had a living relationship with God. In the deepest interior of his identity, every human being is an Addressed and an Answerer, a creature of God. This is also the foundation of the dignity in the human person that is Rudolf Höß. This dignity means on the one hand infinite affirmation, on the other hand infinite vocation.
Affirmation: God wants the life of Rudolf Höß. He should be himself, he is liberated by God. A human being is not a function of God, but a personal counterpart. God’s affirmation of the free person does not stop even if he decides against God.
Vocation: Love calls to love. Like every human being, Rudolf Höß is someone who realizes his humanity by responding to love with love and taking responsibility.
This natural God relationship is mediated in a human way. Through people, Rudolf Höß learns that he is wanted and affirmed in this world. Through people, he is called to responsibility for the world.
Rudolf Höß, born in 1901, experienced such affirmation in his early life. This is especially true for the relationship with his mother, whom he described as “cordial, infinitely good (too good)”5. This good memory sounds as if Höß at the end of his life regretted how little he had responded to this love: “Motherly love and affection is the most beautiful and the most precious thing on earth. I recognized this only when it was too late and I repented of it during my entire life.“6
The warm light of the mother unfortunately stood in the cold shadow of the father, who did not convey such affirmation. The father was not an unpredictable despot, but ” balanced, very straightforward, with unusually strict ethical principles.”7 But the strictness of the upbringing was without love. His value world worked like a totalitarian system. If he wanted to belong, he only had the opportunity to act like a cog in a machine. A cog may be very important, because everything depends on its functioning. In this sense, the conscience of Rudolf Höß was trained. Recognition from the father could only be earned by the fulfilment of his demands – and they were “militarily strict” and “fanatically religious“. The religious relationship was completely drawn into the authoritarian father relationship. The most extreme example is evident when the father made a religious vow that his son would become a priest. Rudolf Höß had not been asked. He wrote about his father:
His manner in making me feel that I had committed a personal wrong against him for which he was responsible before God, since I was intellectually beneath him, made me very stubborn and probably led me later to become very reserved and reclusive toward other people. I could only pray to atone for my sins. My father was a kind of higher being which I could never approach. […] I believe that it was this bigoted education which was responsible for my total withdrawal from others. 8
The father lied to the son when he communicated that he had worth only in the value system of the father. He was not taught that regardless of his role, he is loved by God who is willing to forgive mistakes. The religiosity of the father was in truth atheistic, God-less, because it was without love. This made a true relationship with God very difficult. This is the impression that results from the memoirs of Rudolf Höß.
So it is understandable that Rudolf Höß withdraws from the sphere of influence of his father and closes himself off. Throughout his life he had no friends. He felt most comfortable alone in the great outdoors. This inner closing off makes it difficult to trust others; the desire to be recognized by authorities; the attitude of demanding strict subordination from others – these are defining traits in the life of Rudolf Höß.
Rudolf Höß alienated himself from home and was increasingly attracted to a different milieu. Almost simultaneously with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the appearance of military hospitals in his hometown of Mannheim, the father died. Thus “the strong guiding hand of the father was missing”9. Rudolf tried to escape home at the age of fifteen and “at least not miss this war.”10 For him, it was the way to his self-realization. When Rudolf Höß spoke of his calling, of the inner call of his life, he spoke of being a soldier.
After the final break with the family he “had a home again and felt safe in the companionship of my comrades.”11. He found here the affirmation which the parental milieu did not give him. But what kind of affirmation? Here everything was determined by the connecting task, the combat community in comradeship. He experienced no affirmation for his own sake, but only because of his achievements. The comradeship lived on the fact that “everyone can count absolutely on everyone else when there is need and danger“12. And you could count on Rudolf Höß. Awarded many times, the army’s youngest non-commissioned officer and head of a cavalry division, which, under his leadership, managed to beat all odds throughout half of Europe. He became a leader and hero. The affirmation he experiences is the fruit of his achievement. Inwardly, he remains lonely, a “loner, who had to deal with the inner turmoil myself“13.
It reveals the internal and external division of the world typical of the structure of evil, whereby the outside loses all ethical demands. Warmth, humanity, albeit stunted, exists only within, in one’s own community. The fight is self-assertion against enemies that need to be controlled or destroyed. Those who are being fought against are no longer considered worthy human beings. The horror that can be felt when killing is merely to be overcome, it contains no message that needs to be heard. This soldier’s existence is not to listen to the voice of the heart. Höß calls it the voice of his “soldier’s blood”14.
It is hardly surprising that the “flame of faith”15 was slowly extinguished during this time. The exit from the Church in 1922 was inwardly consistent, and it was also the seal of separation from the parental Catholic milieu.
This time in the early twenties moved at a very fast pace for the young Höß. The events tore him down. The separation from home and immersion into the life of a soldier in the First World War can hardly be considered a mature decision.
Rudolf Höß spent the years 1924-1928 in prison because the group he had joined after the war had murdered an alleged traitor. He quickly adapted to the prison system and became an exemplary prisoner.16 It was a time of reflection for him. He read a lot about the National Socialist modern movement in Germany: history, racial doctrine, literature, also the journal of the new settlement movement of the Artamans. He then made his most important life decision – to join this movement of the Artamans . He wanted to continue helping with the reconstruction of Germany:
In the long run, reconstruction with broad goals—I wanted to settle! During the long years of isolation in my cell this became clear: There was only one goal that was worthwhile for me to fight for and to work for: a self- acquired farmhouse with a big healthy family. This should become the content and goal of my life.17
In 1929 he became a member of the League of Artamans. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Heinrich Himmler, who also belonged to the Artaman movement, was commissioned to appoint the SS (Schutzstaffel) as the third armed group in the state (in addition to police and military). Höß went into the active service of the SS which removed him from work on the farm, but was characterized by the same ideology. Höß wrote:
My passionate love for the Fatherland and my nationalistic consciousness led me to the NSDAP and to the SS. I considered the National Socialist worldview as the only appropriate one for the German people. The SS was in my opinion the strongest defender of this understanding of life, and it alone was capable of initiating a slow return of the whole German nation to a life that would correspond to its true nature.18
Self-Understanding of the SS
In many statements made by Höß it is clear that the quasi-religious world view of National Socialism played a role for him. After the war, psychologist G.M. Gilbert summed up his impression from the talks he had with Höß in prison: after he had finally broken with the Church, “it seems that Höß replaced religion by Nazi propaganda”19.
The following are some of the most important aspects:
The swastika, the symbol of National Socialism, was a deliberate alternative to the cross, the symbol of Christianity. The symbol of the sun (cartwheel) was presented as a sign of vital life force opposed to the symbol of death, weakness, and compassion. German culture should return to the Germanic philosophy of nature, before the time of Christianity (which was influenced by the Jews). The swastika was the symbol of the rebirth of Germany20.
The National Socialists did not see themselves as atheists. “God” somehow exists as the creator of the world and its order and is its inherent life force. However, one cannot enter into a personal dialogical relationship with him as the Bible requires. The relationship with him arises through the participation in the struggle for life which constitutes the essence of creation. The will of God is to restore creation to the species. The chosen people are the German Aryans and they have the leading role and embody in themselves the prototype of the true man. Poles, Slavs are to subordinate themselves as sub humans to the Germans and serve them. The Jews have to be destroyed as pests.
In particular, the original sin that is the mixture of the races has to be combatted. Because many things got mixed up and the creation order was threatened, Providence sent Hitler, who took the lead in the decisive fight to save Germany. For the fight to be successful, he must be able to rely on an elite discipleship, the SS Order. Absolute obedience to the leader is at the same time absolute obedience to the will of God; this corresponds to the innermost life force of nature, comparable to the instinct of animals. Conscience consists in following this call of the blood spontaneously, unrestrainedly. When the fight will be decided, families will have a healthy life and the German people guaranteed eternal existence.
The action of Höß in the SS can only be understood from this world-view.
As an old, fanatical National Socialist, I took that as a fact – just as a Catholic believes in his church dogma. It was just the truth that you were not allowed to shake; I had no doubt about it.21
Höß plunged into the National Socialist world with his whole life, “with heart and soul“22. Here he found his calling and his “main task“: the establishment and expansion of the Auschwitz camp.23 On the assignment of the extermination of the Jews Höß said:
And when Himmler summoned me, I accepted the assignment as something I had already accepted – not just me, but everyone – I thought it was absolutely right, despite this order that would have shaken the strongest and coldest people [ …] and although I was temporarily scared … it all fitted very well with what had been preached to me for years. The problem itself, the extermination of Judaism, was not new – only that I should be the one to do it frightened me first, but after receiving the clear direct order and even an explanation, there was nothing left but to execute it.24
The immense power of this movement came from the universal view of the world through which it understood itself as a salvation movement. The ideology imitates the good – in separation from the good. God’s will was explained, evil localized, morality developed and the meaning of life found in the main task – in the fight against the call which proceeds from the other, in the fight against the law of love, in the heartless fight against God. That was the structure of evil in the life of the commander of Auschwitz.
Pangs of Conscience
Is only upbringing, only ideology, only the “movement” to blame for the crimes of Auschwitz and not Rudolf Höß personally? Is there no voice of conscience that breaks up ideological isolation? Does God have a chance in the structure of evil?
Rudolf Höß had become a “conscientious” person, but in separation from the divine voice of conscience, in separation from the kingdom of love. At the end of his autobiography, he emphasized that he had “also a heart“25, but that was exactly what he had suppressed in his time in the SS: “I wanted to be known infamously as harsh in order not to be considered soft.“26 That was the incursion of evil in the life of the Commander of Auschwitz, the point at which the basic ethical decision was made for the separation from God. Instead of sticking to God, he clung to the idol, the movement that gave him recognition and meaning. During the trial in Warsaw the public prosecutor Dr. Tadeusz Cyprian asked the accused:
“As you were executing this operation of human extermination, did you think that this was in agreement with moral principles?” – “At that time when I received the order as well as at the beginning of the operation I did not think about it. I had received an order, and this order and the reasons given for it were decisive for me.” – “And your conscience never haunted you?” – “Later on, yes.” – “When?” – “When the big transports arrived and we daily had to exterminate the women in particular. Everybody who participated in this had the feeling: is this really necessary”27.
The voice of the heart that connects us to others and to God never stops speaking. It belongs to our nature as a human being. It breaks down into every selfish and ideological isolation again and again. It testifies to the fragility of evil and is the reason for our freedom. It is the standard by which we have to measure ourselves.
What did he do with his remorse? He suppressed and repressed it. “I mounted my horse and raced away from the dreadful scenes“28. He did not take them seriously as an appeal to change his life. Rudolf Höß betrayed the voice of his heart and that was his essential sin.
But within himself, Höß could not cope with this conflict.
It would often happen, when at home, that my thoughts suddenly turned to incidents that had occurred during the extermination. I then had to go out. I could no longer bear to be in my homely family circle. When I saw my children happily playing, or observed my wife’s delight over our youngest, the thought would often come near to me: how long will our happiness last? […] When I stood beside the transports, or by the gas-chambers or the fires, I was often compelled to think of my wife and children. I was no longer happy in Auschwitz once the mass exterminations had begun. I had become dissatisfied with myself.29
Höß not only killed other people. By destroying his relationship with them he also killed his own humanity.
After the collapse of the Third Reich, Rudolf Höß was found by the British Field Security Police on March 11, 1946 and arrested. From the beginning, Höß was ready to testify and acknowledge his responsibility as the Commander of Auschwitz concentration camp. Among the great war criminals Höß was a rare exception with his sober testimony and his renunciation of shifting all responsibility to others.30 The main trial of Höß began on March 2, 1947 in Warsaw and ended on April 2 with the death sentence. Rudolf Höß was hanged on 16 April 1947 on the site of the former concentration camp Auschwitz.
Beforehand, in February 1947, he wrote his autobiographical transcript “My Psyche: Development, life and Experience” in prison in Krakow. There he took stock: “I still am, as I have been, a convinced National Socialist in my attitude to life“.31 That changed, however. Ultimately, he broke completely with the National Socialist worldview. Immediately after the trial ended he was sent to the prison in Wadowice. While there he asked for a meeting with a Catholic priest. On April 10, 1947, Father Lohn SJ held many hours of conversation with Höß. He reentered the church and went to confession. He then wrote a “statement” of his own accord and handed it to the prosecutor for publication:
My conscience forces me to make the following declaration: in the seclusion of my detainment I arrived at the bitter knowledge of how enormous my crime against humanity has been. As commander of the Auschwitz extermination camp I executed part of the horrible human extermination plans of the ‘Third Reich’. Thereby I caused the greatest harm against humanity and human solidarity. In particular, I caused incredible suffering to the Polish people. I am atoning for my responsibility with my life. May God forgive me my actions one day. I ask for pardon from the Polish nation. In the Polish prisons I first experienced what human compassion [humanity, Menschlichkeit] means. In spite of all that had happened I was shown a human compassion that I never expected and which shamed me profoundly. May the revelations and descriptions of the enormous crimes against humanity lead to the fact that in the future all prerequisites for such atrocious events will be prevented in advance! Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, Wadowice, April 12, 1947.32
For the first time Höß confessed to a responsibility for what happened in Auschwitz, not only in the legal sense (“as Commander”), but also in the moral sense. As impressive as this explanation is, it also makes clear that this cannot be the last step. Regrettably remorse and request for forgiveness was not pronounced by him “particularly” towards the Jewish people and many other victims.
Entry into the Catholic Church and confession do not demand that he be perfect. It is also not expected that he has total insight into himself and a complete grip on his life. What is asked for is the desire to live in a true relationship with God. The gaze of God is filled with love and also truthfulness. To confront the gaze of God means to learn to see oneself with new eyes and to recognize a true sin even where no subjective feeling of guilt existed.
What does forgiveness of sin mean? What will be forgiven? What has happened cannot be undone in the sense that a state occurs, as if what had happened did not happen. Such forgiveness does not exist. The priest who hears the confession can only say that God is ready to renew the relationship. God does not say that a person like Höß is necessarily eternally damned. God gives the chance of repentance, a return to love. But the relationship with God also restores the relationship to all people. There is no such thing as an isolated redemption. Höß can no longer understand himself without taking an infinite responsibility toward his victims.
The blood of Abel cries out from the ground (Gen. 4,10). Can the relationship with Abel, the relation to the gassed human beings be healed? It must be emphasized that the relationship to the victims continues. The extermination activity cannot destroy the connection (as the Nazi plan wanted). The consequences of sin have not vanished; the relationship with God requires engagement for their healing. This obligation exists forever; it does not end with the death of the victim nor with the death of the perpetrator. The Christian tradition has the image of “purgatory”, which can only be explained from faith in total justice: unless purification takes place that goes to the very root, there is no entering heaven. This means for Höß, that he has to learn to look into the faces of the victims and to understand himself in this encounter. Only then will he recognize the whole extent of his crimes and weep bitterly. He can count firmly on the love of God, but he must allow that everything that opposes this will be “burnt.”33 He will have to learn to the end what it means to love and to give one’s life for the others. The others are the way to God.
From a human point of view we are not able to imagine how healing is here possible, and how the tension between God’s unending mercy and God’s absolute justice is resolved. All images remain inappropriate. The incomprehensible mystery of evil remains. But also the incomprehensible mystery of God’s love remains and we have the hope that in the end it will be victorious.
The confession of Höß does not bring the chapter to a close for the Church. The turning toward the perpetrator, includes the turning toward the victims. If the Church wants to confess the mercy of God, then the sacrament of confession also means that it must accept the responsibility which arises out of the consequences of the sins of Rudolf Höß. It means that she wants to continue her ministry in love and atonement. This remains to be done for an indefinite time here on earth in terms of work for reconciliation.
- 1 Lecture in Oxford, 7 February 2019 “The conscience of a Perpetrator. Rudolf Höss, Commander of Auschwitz”. A talk on theology in and after Auschwitz by Father Dr Manfred Deselaers, theologian and pastor of the Center for Dialogue and Prayer, Auschwitz. Joint event of The Newman Society & the Orthodox Christian Society.
- 2 More detail: Manfred Deselaers: „And Your Conscience Never Haunted You?“ The Life of Rudolf Höß, Commander of Auschwitz, and the question of his responsibility before God and human beings. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum 2013. Translated from German into English by Renate Rosen. – All English translations of quotes are taken from this edition, unless otherwise stated.
- 3 „Meine Psyche. Werden, Leben und Erleben“. Published as: Kommandant in Auschwitz. Autobiografische Aufzeichnungen des Rudolf Höss [Commander in Auschwitz. Aubiographical Notes by Rudolf Höss]. Published with remarks by Martin Broszat. Munich, German Pocketbook Company, 1989 (in the following pages abbreviated as: Autobiographical Notes).
- 4 Autobiographical Notes, p. 156
- 5 BATAWIA, Prof. Dr. Stanisław, Rudolf Hoess. Komendant obozu w Oświęcimiu Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce VII, 1951, S. 28f.
- 6 Wspomnienia Hoessa 5, Archiwum Państwowego Muzeum w Oświęcimiu (APMO), Bl. 488.
- 7 BATAWIA, Rudolf Hoess, S. 28.
- 8 GILBERT, G. M., Nürnberger Tagebuch. Frankfurt am Main 1963, 2. Aufl., S. 261.
- 9 Autobiographical Notes, p. 29.
- 10 ibid.
- 11 Autobiographical Notes, pp. 34f.
- 12 Autobiographical Notes, pp. 35f.
- 13 Ibid.
- 14 Autobiographical Notes, p. 29.
- 15 APMO Höß-Prozess 21,21.
- 16 Autobiographical Notes, cp. p. 45.
- 17 Autobiographical Notes, p. 53.
- 18 Autobiographical Notes, p. 155.
- 19 G.M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary, p.161Eyre & Spottiswoode, . London, 1948
- 20 Cp. A. Rosenberg, Das Wesensgefüge des Nationalsozialismus, München 1933.
- 21 G.M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary, p.160. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1948
- 22 Autobiographical Notes, p. 152.
- 23 Autobiographical Notes, p. 94.
- 24 G.M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary, p.149f. Eyre & Spottiswoode, . London, 1948
- 25 Autobiographical Notes, p. 156
- 26 Autobiographical Notes, p. 70.
- 27 APMA-B, Hoss Trial 23, 127f.
- 28 Autobiographical Notes, p. 133f.
- 29 Ibid.
- 30 Cp. BATAWIA, Rudolf Hoess, p. 12. – In the concluding plea during the trial in Warsaw, the defender Ostaszewski compares Höß in this regard to other SS leaders. APMO Höß-Prozeß 30, 88-90.
- 31 Autobiographical Notes, p. 152.
- 32 German in: BIULETYN Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce VII, Warszawa 1951, p. 222.
- 33 The biblical picture of purification like „ Gold in the furnace” cf. Ps 21,10; Prov 17,3; Mal 3,2f; 1 Cor 3,13-15.